Tracking my steps and workouts has been second nature to me for over ten years now, when I first started using activity trackers because I needed something that could help me with my fitness progress and health. Over the past eight years working at SELF magazine I’ve had so many chances to test all different types of wearable trackers for our Fitness Awards but Fitbit has been able to keep me a dedicated user with its easy to use phone app and accurate tracking technology.
I have had many Fitbits over the last few years, including the Blaze, Flex, and Charge, but ever since the Fitbit smartwatch came on the market I haven’t used a traditional fitness tracker. I currently use the Fitbit Versa 2, which is a smartwatch, but I was pleasantly surprised to test the Charge 4 and find that it has all the features of a normal fitness tracker, including heart rate tracking, step tracking and sleep tracking—but with a few new features that make it an excellent choice for a smartwatch loyalist like me. Built-in GPS, tap to pay, and heart rate zones are just some of the new add-ons I enjoyed that reminded me of the functionality of my smartwatch.
How I Tested
Since I’ve used a smartwatch for so long, my main purpose was to see how this activity tracker compared. Is it as easy to use as my smartwatch? Will I get the same benefits from the Fitbit phone app? Will I be able to track my workout as efficiently as I do now?
We also asked a panel of experts (and used expert criteria that we gathered for a previous Fitness Awards) to help determine how I should test the tracker. All said that finding the right tracker is a personal process, since there are so many choices with so many different features. But they did note a few things to look out for when deciding: reliability and ease of use, accuracy, battery life, comfort, style, ease of syncing, water resistance, and other features. To test the Fitbit Charge 4, I wore it for three weeks and did very different workouts to see how it stacks up, including the following:
- Running almost every day at different speeds and different distances
- Wearing the Fitbit all day, everyday (even at night) to test battery life and comfort
- Wearing the Fitbit in a pool to test water resistance
- Using the Fitbit for a variety of workouts including strength training, running and HIIT
You can read more about the criteria for activity trackers and smartwatches here. Read on for my thoughts on the Fitbit Charge 4.
Reliability and Ease of Use
Out of the box, the Charge 4 (and most Fitbits) are very easy to understand and use. The tracker was charged when I opened the box. Once I unboxed it, I opened the Fitbit app and chose to set up a new device, which was easy to do, since the app gives you a list of all the watches and trackers they have available. Unfortunately, Fitbit will only allow you to have one tracker connected to your app at a time, so since I had been using the Versa 2 I had to delete that watch in order to add the new tracker. After placing the tracker in the charging dock it’s just a matter of entering the four-digit code from your watch into the app and you are ready to go. The app will explain to you all the features of the watch, how to wear it on your wrist, and how to care for it. It also has a section where you can customize the clock face, add a credit card to your wallet for easy payments, and also see a variety of third-party apps you can add. If this is your first time using a Fitbit, you can also customize all of your personal information. All in all, set up and use was simple, easy, and intuitive.
Over the years, one thing I’ve found that the Fitbit does well is accurate tracking. Once you’ve used a Fitbit tracker for a while it will calibrate your stride length in walking and running for a more accurate measurement. It usually uses GPS data from your phone to help calibrate distances and improve accuracy over time. However, a great new feature about the new Charge 4 is that you don’t need your phone at all! The tracker comes with it’s own GPS so you can keep your phone at home when doing your workouts (this feature is available on the Fitbit Ionic smartwatch, but is new for the Fitbit Charge).
To test the Charge 4’s accuracy, I did a few things. First, I did a test by walking 75 steps (manually counting them myself); the tracker accurately tracked all 75 that I took. Then, I tested it on a run, which is where I found the main difference in accuracy. I went to the Saddle River Pathway in New Jersey to test; it’s one of my favorite places to run because the six-mile trail (12 miles roundtrip) has markers along the way for every .1 mile so you can keep track of your distance.
One note about my running test: I’ve been running for over 10 years now and have been at various fitness levels as well as speed levels. I used to be able to run five miles without taking a break but now, after taking some time off from running, I can only do one mile without stopping. Because of this, I now use the run/walk method after my first mile. This has been helping me re-build my endurance, but I’ve noticed that it also confuses some fitness trackers, including past Fitbits I’ve used, and I wanted to see how the Charge 4 would fare on a combination run/walk for four miles.
I ran for my first mile and used my Nike Run App as well as the mile markers and Fitbit to see how accurate the new Charge 4 was. At the 1 mile marker all three said one mile exactly.
However, I decided to run/walk for mile 2. At the mile 2 marker my Nike Run App was spot on again, but my Fitbit was .06 off.
I did another run/walk for mile 3 and then ran the entire time for mile 4, for a total time of 52 minutes. By the end of my four-mile session (as measured by the trail’s mile markers) my Nike Run App said 4.02 miles, while the Fitbit said 4.13. This isn’t that much of a difference, but it is something to note if you normally do run/walk type workouts. I have tested the Charge 4 multiple times after this first run and if I run the entire time or walk the entire time it’s accurate but it always slightly off when I combine both activities.
Fitbit says that the Charge 4 has a seven-day battery life, so I decided to put that to the test. I did one day with minimal activity, where all I did was make sure I hit my 15,000 step goal but did not do any other type of workout. At the end of the night the watch was at 93%! That is great battery life for a full day of walking. However, this isn’t how I usually use my activity trackers, since I’m a pretty active person: I run at least one mile every day as well as make sure I walk enough to always hit my 15,000 step goal. On top of that, some days I do a 45-minute workout class. So for another test period, I tested the battery life by charging it fully and then tracking how long it took the battery to drain based on my normal level of activity. The Charge 4 lasted about 4 days without charging, which is still a long span of battery life, losing about 25% battery life per day. By the night of the fourth day I was at 5% so I plugged it in overnight to charge. (I’ve charged it during the day as well and found that it only takes an hour and a half for the watch to charge fully from 0%.) I consistently also wore the tracker to sleep every night, unless it was charging, which didn’t affect the battery life that much when I woke up in the morning.
When wearing my smartwatch all day I can always feel that it’s on my wrist, but the lightweight feel of the Charge 4 is a big positive to me. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m wearing it until a notification or alarm turns on to remind me that it’s there. This comes in handy when I want to track my sleep. Sleep is an important part of fitness recovery but I’m not the best sleeper, if I’m being honest. Light or noise usually wakes me up and keeps me awake most nights. Even though my smartwatch has a sleep tracking function it always felt too heavy on my wrist and I couldn’t bear keeping it on all night. Since the Charge 4 is so lightweight I have been able to wear it to bed almost every night without even noticing (and yes, my sleep score according to the Charge 4 is poor-fair, so it’s something I need to work on).
The Charge 4 also comes with two size options right in the box. I tried on the small first and since it’s an adjustable band it fit me perfectly. The small size can fit wrists with 5.5 to 7.1 inch circumference while the large is designed for wrists with 7.1 to 8.7 inch circumference. Most Fitbit watches that I’ve had in the past either come in small or large; you can measure your wrists ahead of time to know the correct fit.
Style is another important aspect of activity trackers. The out of the box band that comes with the Charge 4 is a normal looking band. It’s black with a ribbed pattern to give it some depth but it’s not something I would wear out to a fancy evening—I would strictly use this band for working out. The good thing is that Fitbit has three other bands in various colors you can choose from on their website that work with the Charge 4 to make it a little more stylish. I also found a bunch of options on Amazon, so I could have a new band every day of the week if I wanted.
Syncing the Charge 4 to the Fitbit app is the best way to see all of your activity and workouts throughout the day. I have found that syncing to the Fitbit app on my iPhone is pretty seamless. I usually have the app open in the background on my phone and I have all-day sync selected so at certain times throughout the day, the app would sync without me having to do anything. This is great because it means I don’t have to constantly open the app and pull down on the screen for the sync to start. Once in the app, you can see all the data you’ve synced since first setting up the account. I can see my steps, weight, sleep, meals and workouts all the way back to 2014 when I first started using the Fitbit app.
Fitbit states that the Charge 4 is also water resistant up to 50 meters. While I couldn’t fully test whether that was true, I did test its water resistance by using the tracker in my friend’s swim spa. The water isn’t very deep in a swim spa but you can swim against a strong current of water so it mimics you being in a pool. I swam for about 10 minutes and then wore the watch in the water the rest of the day which amounted to about five hours. I was a little nervous that when I got out of the water that the watch wouldn’t work anymore but my worries were unfounded as the watch continues to work as expected.
With so many features available for trackers, experts say to really understand what features are important to you before you buy. For me, one of my favorite features about the Fitbit is the app, which is really comprehensive. The Fitbit app can track all your activities, meals, water intake, period, resting heart rate, and more. Mostly everything that I could want to know about my body during the day and night is stored in the app.
A new feature of the Charge 4 is tracking your zone minutes. Your tracker will track if you are either in the fat burning zone or the cardio zone for optimal fitness results. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity (the fat burn zone) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (the cardio zone) per week. Every time I do a workout it tracks 1 zone minute when I’m in the fat burn zone and 2 zone minutes when I’m in the cardio zone, based on my heart rate. You can customize the zone minutes you want to reach per day and per week depending on what works for you. I found this feature to be a nice addition to my workouts. I hated having to always look down at my watch while I was running or doing a HIIT class to see my heart rate. With this new feature when you switch between your fat burning zone and cardio zone the watch will notify you. I still make sure to get to my 15,000 steps per day but the zone minutes help me also make sure I get enough moderate or vigorous activity each day, so I think it’s a great new feature.
Another new feature of the Charge 4 is the ability to connect and control Spotify right on your watch, but unfortunately you need a Spotify premium subscription. Since I don’t have one, I was not able to play around with this feature.
The Bottom Line
In the end I have to say I’ve grown to love the new Charge 4. With its slim design and out of the box features, I was pleasantly surprised on how similar it was to my Versa 2 smartwatch. And with the $149 price tag, it’s cheaper than most smartwatches on the market, too. If you are looking for a lightweight and easy-to-use tracker then this one’s for you. If Fitbit would let me have two trackers synced to my phone at once it would be perfect, but until then I am going to stick with my new Charge 4 for the foreseeable future.
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